The Courage to Change

Rev. Alison Cornish, January 22, 2012

There is a certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse; as I have found in traveling in a stage-coach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position and be bruised in a new place.
– Washington Irving

No mirror ever became glass again;
no bread ever became wheat.
no ripened grape ever became sour fruit.
Mature yourself and be secure
from a change for the worse. Become the Light.
– Jalal al-Din Rumi

Reading     excerpt from “Women and Nature,” Susan Griffin[1]
The… woman who was wicked in her honesty asked questions of her mirror. When she was small she asked, “Why am I afraid of the dark? Why do I feel I will be devoured?”  And her mirror answered, “Because you have reason to fear. You are small and you might be devoured. Because you are nothing but a shadow, a wisp, a seed, and you might be lost in the dark.” And so she became large. Too large for devouring. From that tiny seed of a self a mighty form grew and now it was she who cast shadow. But after a while she came to the mirror again and asked, “Why am I afraid of my bigness?” And the mirror answered, “Because you are big. There is no disputing who you are. And it is not easy for you to hide.” And so she began to stop hiding. She announced her presence. She even took joy in it. But still, when she looked in her mirror she saw herself and was frightened, and she asked the mirror why. “Because,” the mirror said, “no one else sees what you see, no one else can tell you if what you see is true.” So after that she decided to believe her own eyes. Once when she felt herself growing older, she said to the mirror, “Why am I afraid of birthdays?” Because,” the mirror said, “there is something you have always wanted to do which you have been afraid of doing and you know time is running out.” And she ran from the mirror as quickly as she could because she knew in that moment she was not afraid and she wanted to seize the time. Over time, she and her mirror became friends, and the mirror would weep for her in compassion when her fears were real. Finally, her reflection asker her, “What do you still fear?” And the old woman answered, “I still fear death. I still fear change.” And her mirror agreed. “Yes, they are frightening. Death is a closed door,” the mirror flourished, “and change is a door hanging open.”
“Yes, but fear is a key,” laughed the wicked old woman, “and we still have our fears.”  She smiled.

 My mother – and, so our family – is going through Change with a capital C.  Mom is moving out of the house that she and my father bought in 1959 when my brother was six years old, and I was less than a year.  In those 52 years, there’s been a lot of living and no shortage of changes for all of us, and to the house as well – an addition here, a wall taken down there, a new garden over there.  But the biggest change was my father’s death 2½ years ago, making the care of the house and yard all my mom’s. The proverbial last straw seems to have been October’s unexpected snowstorm which dumped over a foot of snow on central Connecticut, snapping limbs and even whole trees still in full leaf, pulling down wires and caving in roofs.  Mom, and the house, came through OK, but the backyard of mature oaks took a beating and it was almost like camping with the power out for nearly a week.  So during the Thanksgiving holiday we looked at a condominium across town; before the weekend was over, her offer had been accepted, and the move was set in motion.

As quick and smooth as that initial decision was, what has followed has been far more challenging, even painful.  How do you begin going through a lifetime of possessions, so many of them interwoven with stories and memories and people you love, many of whom are now gone?  Where do you find the energy and patience to give or throw away what you don’t carefully pack, label and lug to a new, and smaller, home? Where do you put things that have always been right at your fingertips, but now, there’s no drawer or cupboard in that same, habituated place?  In our phone calls and e-mails, I hear my mother’s frustration and how overwhelming this time feels to her. 

Change – whether thrust upon us by outside forces and circumstances, or chosen by us (and our family’s Change has some of both) – is a constant in life. We know this, even if we are mystified by why it must be so. The Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche says it like this: “Why is it that everything changes? And only one answer comes back to me: That is how life is.”[2]  But no matter how many times we are reminded of this truth, we, for the most part, do not live easily with it. More often than perhaps we’d like to admit, we do not welcome change.  How many of us feel empathy with poor Mr. Bud, deeply satisfied with his predictable and steady-state life, and, like him, are – at least at first – less than pleased by the Zorros that come into our lives? I have to say, even though I haven’t lived in the house my mother is leaving for more than 30 years, I am struggling a bit with the enormity of this change even as I know the result will bring ease to my mother. 

All change includes an element of loss.  Sometimes what is lost looms large – a family home for more than half a century, a beloved father and dependable husband.  Other times, as with the changes brought by age and time, loss may be more subtle and even mixed with benefits, which nonetheless, still affect us.  Children arrive (greeted hopefully with joy), (finally) grow up, strike out on their own (hopefully) and leave a (not easily filled) hole behind.  Even when change is for the good it is still a move away from the status quo, and with that shift, some bit of our identity gets bounced about. Change rattles, shakes things up.  It goes like this.  We are who we are.  Then something changes.  We adjust, adapt.  We get comfortable. We know who we are now. Then there is more change.  We lose certainty, assuredness, until we can find our footing again.  And on and on it goes, which is actually a much better description of reality than how we tend to think of it – as mostly static, with change being the anomaly.  Stanley Nuland writes, “A stable system is not a system that never changes. It is a system that constantly adjusts and readjusts… Stability demands change to compensate for changing circumstances. Ultimately, then, stability depends on instability.”[3]

Understanding, even accepting this does not ensure that we are any more ready to embrace change.  In fact, we are quite adept at resisting change, as this wonderful story illustrates: 

There was a man swimming across a pond. He had a rock in his hand and as he tried to swim, he was sinking both under the weight of the rock and because he could use only one hand to pull himself through the water. People gathered around the pond and they watched him as he began to dip under the water, coughing as he emerged.  “Drop the rock!” someone shouted. But the man just kept lurching through the water, splashing and beginning to sink. “Drop the rock”” someone screamed more loudly, in case the man hadn’t heard. But the man didn’t drop the rock and he started to go down and stay down. “Please,” everyone shouted. “Please, drop the rock or you will drown!” The man looked once at the shore and right before he disappeared from sight forever, he answered, “I can’t! It’s mine.”[4]


One writer, Liz M., reflecting on this story, says:

I will swallow many mouthfuls of water before I am willing to change. The easiest changes for me are the ones in which fate lands on top of me like some metaphoric piano and my job lies simply in accepting and adjusting.  Motherhood happened that way, unplanned but unparalleled…

But when it comes to making a voluntary change, I will endure the worst circumstances, suffer the most miserable fools, swallow the bitterest anger, nurse the sharpest resentments. I will wear clothes a size too small, glasses a prescription too weak, shoes beyond the cobbler’s aid, just to preserve my comfort with the devil I know.  I’ll make a contract with misery if there is just a whiff of the promise that I can control the outcome of events.

Until I can’t.  The day inevitably comes when the part of me that wants health more than sickness, or joy more than sorrow, or serenity more than turmoil wakes up and demands I pay attention…[5] 

Change demands that we pay attention.  And it also summons courage.  That is what I believe change calls forth from us. We often hear that it takes courage to change – the title, in fact, of my reflections this morning.  But I want to suggest that change may lead us to courage – that perhaps a more apt title would be “The Courage Born of Change.” Change, when accepted, even embraced, brings with it the means to tap into powers we forget are within us all.  In fact, if it were not for change, we might never know courage, nor know what we are capable of, or soar above and beyond who we thought we were. 

Think about the courage that you each know as the strength to endure in the face of what the fates bring us – the aforementioned “metaphoric pianos” of life.  No one in this room has escaped these changes, sudden or gradual, large and small both.  You who have experienced the death and the birth of someone beloved … who are living with an illness that has changed the way of life … who has picked up and moved, and moved again, and perhaps will once again … who changed jobs … lost a job … retired … come out of retirement.  In short, who here has not found themselves swept along by a life that demands nerve just to wake to the day, to pull a body and soul together, and do what needs to be done? Not only do we need a constant supply of courage to face each and every day, it’s also through these daily encounters with Life and Love that we develop the skills and endurance we need for those changes we choose to make – the courage to take action in the face of fear, danger or hardship – the courage of the serenity prayer, “the courage to change the things I can.”

Courage is not something we find outside of ourselves.  It’s something that grows within us.  Its seed is planted when we draw our first breath outside the womb.  It is nurtured by the circumstances of a human life.  It is tested by events beyond sometimes even our wildest imaginings.  It is strengthened by those who walk together with us in love and solidarity.  Here is the truth:  each of us has within a well of courage to be drawn upon when we face our own demons and the darkest nights of our souls – when it comes time to set aside the bottle, leave an abusive spouse, take a stand against the crowd, apologize, forgive, reach out, face a diagnosis, start anew on a path yet to be trod – even to accept the things we cannot change.

Right now, at this point in our collective history, cultivating courage may be the most important spiritual practice with which we can engage because it seems to be the consensus view that the very nature of change – is changing.  How is change different as we move deeper into this century?  First, the tempo of change is ever faster. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noted that, in the past, “the time-span of important change was considerably longer than that of a single human life…” Most people inhabited a world whose contours were recognizably the same when they were old as when they were young …”Today the time-span is considerably shorter than that of a human life…” and it has continued to accelerate.[6] 

Second, what was once contained and localized change now occurs on a global scale – just look at the rapid fluctuations of the financial markets or the spread of viruses that whip around the globe regardless of international boundaries or time zones. 

And third, as the events of 2011 amply demonstrated – from the Arab spring to the severe weather conditions in the U.S. – change is now happening in less predictable ways.  We are living in what one writer calls “a millennium of perpetual novelty,” which is changing the very nature of the human animal – Dr. Theodore Rubin notes, “Nowadays a great many people are developing personalities that almost require constant change in order for them to feel comfortable.”[7]  That is, the long-held human values of stability and continuity are being challenged (and at times overrun) by a pace of change that, for some, exceeds our ability to respond and adapt to it, and for others, is like an addictive drug that some people can’t live without.

The nature of change is changing.  It’s faster, bigger, and less knowable. And it’s reshaping the human endeavor. Indeed, great courage is needed – courage to resist being swept into fast moving currents of change whose implications are not yet fully understood, and also courage to break away from the old, ineffective ways of doing things.  We need courage to face a world of changed circumstances, of fewer resources ripe for our picking, and so too, the courage to make difficult sacrifices.  We need courage to fix our failing democracy. 

Perhaps this is a good moment to pause, breathe, and speak, inwardly or out loud, that well-known and so necessary prayer. 

God (or higher power or Spirit of Life)
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

I suspect that if I told my mother that I see her having great courage in making the decision to move, she would demur.  No, she would say, it’s a lot of work and heartache and bother and upset.  And, she would add, I’m not at all sure that the result is going to be something I even like.  No, it’s just something to get through.

And what might I say? That all her life she has been building up a reserve of courage – as a refugee, beginning life here in the U.S. with nothing; as a woman determined to have a career as well as a family; as a cancer survivor; as someone who, for 83 years, has borne her share of challenge.  That’s the courage she now draws on for this move, but also when she volunteers to be with the youngest children in the poorest of the town’s schools; when she writes letters to state and national officials promoting justice and equity; as she faces the inevitable changes that come with ageing – arthritis and cataracts, and the loss of dear friends and a husband of 55 years. 

And then again, maybe I’ll just give her the book “Say Hello to Zorro!” – and wish for her that there are yet some unexpected and joyful surprises to come with the Change.

[1] Susan Griffin, “Women and Nature,” in Marilyn Sewell, ed., Cries of the Spirit (Boston: Beacon Press), 1991, p. 23.
[2] Sogyal Rinpoche, “The Truth of Impermanence,” in Dennis Wholey, ed., The Miracle of Change (NY:  Pocket Books, 1993) p. 81.
[3] quoted in Peter L. Steinke, Healthy Congregations  workshop 2, p. 28.
[4] Liz M., “Trust the Process,” in Wholey, op cit, p. 33.
[5] ibid., pp. 33-34.
[6] quoted in Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (NY: Continuum, 2002), p. 26.
[7] Theodore Rubin, “Our Culture is Spinning,” in Wholey, op cit, p. 36.

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